AWRI Eyes Biodiesels Marine Uses

February 21, 2003
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MUSKEGON — Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI) is working on a biodiesel conversion project that could have far-reaching implications for both air and water pollution in the Great Lakes.

The institute is in the midst of an economic and engineering study to determine the feasibility of converting the AWRI’s two diesel engine research vessels to biodiesel fuel.

With more than 1 million registered watercraft in Michigan, the institute sees “tremendous potential” for the use of biodiesel in recreational boats, as well.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on over-the-road vehicle emissions are much more stringent than those on marine engines, though some new regulations will be phased in in 2004 and 2007, said Bob Udell, the research assistant overseeing the biodiesel study.

Most small recreational boat markets sell over-the-road diesel. But the marine diesel fuel used by large commercial ships on the Great lakes is dirtier and can have up to 300 times the sulfur, he said.

Is there a market for biofuel in Michigan? That’s one of questions the AWRI is trying to answer.

Dr. William G. Jackson, a private citizen who was instrumental in getting the AWRI established, is funding the institute’s one-year biodiesel conversion study. Another grant is being sought through a foundation for a couple more years of funding, Udell said.

At this stage the project is just a feasibility study; the actual decision as to whether to convert the research vessels to biodiesel has yet to be made, said AWRI Director Alan Steinman.

If the institute does convert, the higher the percentage of biofuel, the better, Steinman said. But he acknowledged it might make more sense to use a biodiesel-petroleum diesel blend to bring the price down a bit, because biodiesel currently costs more than diesel.

The National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory at the old Muskegon Coast Guard station is also looking to convert its vessels to biodiesel.

Last year GLERL ran its boats on biodiesel without any problems, using 100 percent biodiesel in the warmer months and a 50-50 blend throughout the winter, Udell said.

This year GLERL would like to establish a biofueling capacity and is trying to interest some local distributor in installing a biodiesel pump at the field station’s dock or in delivering the fuel by tanker.

“We’re trying to keep track of what GLERL is doing, but at the same time keep an alternative path where we could get our fuel independent of what they’re doing,” Udell said.

If GLERL is successful in interesting a distributor, AWRI will try to team with them, Steinman said.

“We’re looking for whatever kinds of partnerships we can form to generate as much market as possible and keep our costs down as much as possible,” he added.

The institute is completing the scientific literature research, including similar research done by NOAA.

Study results will be published, as well as channeled into the educational mainstream via the curriculum taught on board the research vessels, Steinman said. About 8,000 K-12 students board the two floating aquatic science labs yearly for educational cruises.

The institute, in fact, was awarded a $5,000 grant in January from the Michigan Biomass Energy Program to educate students, marina operators and boaters about the use of biodiesel fuel.

Biodiesel isn’t readily available on Muskegon Lake, where the W.G. Jackson is docked, or in Grand Haven, where the D.J. Angus is docked.

“We’re getting involved somewhat outside our direct project in that we’re working with some people who are trying to establish some businesses here that would set that up for us,” Steinman said.

Udell has surveyed all the marinas and fuel distributors in the triplex between Saugatuck, White Lake and Grand Rapids. The triplex area is the focus of the biodiesel study because of its proximity to the institute and because that’s where AWRI boats primarily operate, he said.

Of the 60 marinas he surveyed between Saugatuck and White Lake, 30 percent responded. At the same time, he asked permission to survey boat owners in each marina and asked whether they’d be interested in hosting a biodiesel seminar for their tenants.

Most of the respondents agreed to both propositions, he said. Once the season begins in April, Udell will go out and meet with marina operators and tenants to discuss the project.

“Hopefully we’re going to come up with a situation that’s attractive to somebody like a Crystal Flash that sees enough business there to get into selling biodiesel in those areas daily,” he said.

“The project won’t be done until August but the feasibility study, I hope, will be done, and all the enabling work will say, ‘Yes.’ If we could arrange to get the fuel delivered, we could go ahead and do it this season.”      

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